And we’re back. Slightly behind schedule and still getting up to speed, but the full chapter will be out next Thursday, and then continues our regularly scheduled chaos. Thanks for bearing with me, and in the meantime, a glimpse of things to come:
“Jump with me on three. One…”
“Wait, jump on three or one-two-three-jump?”
“…two, three — dammit!”
“Which one are we jumping to?”
A sick, horrified look came over him. “We missed it.”
The slab we were riding came to a halt. At the same time, directly above us, the clanking rumble intensified. We looked up to see four walls and a ceiling come rattling down, boxing us in. I couldn’t see anywhere below us to jump to; Nik looked like he was about to make a move, but then floor slabs began sliding in from all directions. Seconds later we were in complete claustrophobic darkness, only able to hear and feel the impacts as more and more barriers piled on outside.
I targeted the walls with the scissors first, once we got the flashlight on, but they were already at least two layers deep. I only got a few of the chunks I split off to fall inward and still couldn’t make a hole to the outside. Breaking up the floor was even less productive, as none of the pieces would fall.
“Ceiling! Boost me!”
Nik wanted to dissuade me, but with no alternatives to suggest, he made me a foothold to reach the ceiling. Before I could strike any of them, the horizontal blocks overhead slid aside, exposing a solid grid of upright blocks above us. There was an agonizing pause, then these blocks began sliding downward as one.
“Are they trash-compactoring us?” I cried.
“Uh-uh. I think they’re just trying to hold us — for now.”
I don’t care how much you trust your friends. Even with preternatural danger senses in play, you too would have a hard time staying calm underneath an unstoppable stone ceiling as it descended first to shoulder, then to chest, and finally to waist height. A portion of the slabs at either end continued all the way down to the floor, further shrinking the chamber. We ended up on our hands and knees in a space roughly six by seven feet, made more cramped by the rubble I’d created.
“I’ve got nothing.” Nik was crawling in frantic circles. “We can’t stay here, but…there’s no way out.”
As the clangor outside was dying down, our new prison dropped a foot or so. With a lurch and a more labored series of clunks, we began haltingly to move sideways.
“They won’t kill us…they won’t kill us,” I said mostly to myself. “The Overseer guy said he didn’t believe in killing kids.”
“And he seemed trustworthy to you?”
“I’m trying to find a bright side here! The man he was with could have killed me before now…”
“So instead they’re going to do to us whatever they did to Esther? Is that the bright side?”
“That’s the weird thing, though. The way they were talking about her in the library — ”
“Wait.” He stopped his pacing. “Give me the flashlight.”
“What? What is it?”
Confused but purposeful, he peered around every chunk of rubble and into every crevice with the light. “It’s Red. Did you bring him with you?”
“Check your pockets, check your backpack!”
“I’m sorry dude, they’re both gone. They slipped away when you fell asleep.”
He shook his head while pawing through the backpack. “He’s…well, if he’s not here, he’s close.” I hated that it was getting harder to tell whether he was cracking up or actually onto something, or both.
In between the clunking of metal on stone, I heard a soft hiss of air through the cracks around us, and my ears popped slightly. Something had just changed, as it had the previous time we were trapped and shunted through the “lattice”.
“Hey — the thing, the octagon doohickey, check it!” I got Nik’s attention off his missing pets long enough for him to find it and hand it to me. As I thought, it had shifted again, or rather we were looking at a different piece of it. The symbol on its side that I thought of as a four-way mustache had been replaced by one that looked like the shameful offspring of a roadrunner and a geometry textbook, and a sky blue had replaced the dark blue of the previous —
Layer. Roia and the Overseer had spoken of layers. There was some crucial aspect of this domain we were ignorant of, and this multilayered trinket we’d picked up at the school might be the only hint we were going to get.
We shuddered to a stop, and the machinery fell silent enough for us to hear faint voices outside. A whole crowd of voices, no doubt discussing what to do now that they had us tinned like a couple of salmon.
A gasp from Nik: “There you are!”
Make that a couple of salmon and a Florida kingsnake.
His searching flashlight beam had caught Great Red slithering out from beneath a piece of broken wall. He scrambled over and let the snake climb onto his arm. “Welcome back, buddy. I swear I checked there already…” He went still for a few moments, then turned toward one of the walls. “Orm’s here too now, but…outside.”
“How do you know?”
“How do you know what people are saying in other languages?”
I forced myself to refocus. It didn’t matter how he could sense the snakes or how they were able to get in here, not unless they had a way of getting us out. On a hunch, I concentrated on the octagon layer I was holding and probed it for connections. They came readily, some stronger than others: two particularly dominant, one particularly faint. Seven other pieces in total, seven layers. And they did feel close at hand the longer I reached for them — more than close, even. Each piece was bound up in something bigger, something I was tempted to call a place, but which my normal vocabulary of space and position didn’t have a word for. But something accessible, if only I could get it right.
With what little instinct I’d developed for this kind of thing, I knew it would take more of myself this time than connecting ideas in the Institute Holistic or symbolic chain links in Bohr Middle. Now the result I was going for was physical. If I could just get my octagon piece to change, that would be a good start.
I seized on one of the two most powerful connections and set myself to making it present. As if I needed more motivation, things were afoot outside the chamber. I heard several ponderous thuds and the rumble of slabs being moved aside as the discussion intensified, with the acerbic tones of the Overseer now dominating the mix. Nik was saying something, but I tuned him out like all the rest. Willing myself not to be trapped, not to remain where I was, I triggered something new to me and not altogether comfortable. As one connection was realized, another was very distinctly broken.
What took place in that instant was almost like moving, but there was no acceleration. I was in one room and then I was in another, crouching in the same position. Another change in pressure, a drop in temperature, and minor yet disorienting adjustments of the floor under me. The new room was much like others we’d seen: bare, well-lit, nondescript slab construction, with a doorway at either end. The octagon layer was now a shade darker, with markings resembling a pile of abused staples.
“Nik?” I called. He was nowhere in sight or earshot, but on turning around, I saw I wasn’t quite alone. The familiar black strip of curiosity that was Orm Embar watched me from the other side of the room.
“Hey, uh, snakes can’t talk here, can they? ‘Cause now would be a great time for some answers.”
Sadly, the only voice I heard was a loud human one coming from outside the room, seemingly calling for backup. My shouting had already blown my chances of a stealthy getaway. Still, however I’d gotten out of their trap, be it teleportation or something stranger, I might be able to return the same way and get Nik out. I stood, picked up Orm, and reached out once more to the connected layers. To my relief, the one I had just been holding, the one marked with the geometrical bird shape, came the easiest. As more voices and feet drew near to the doorway, I tried again with all my concentration to actualize it, to will myself back to Nik.